Skip to main content
Start of main content

Four questions we must answer to design truly smart cities

May 23, 2018

By Rachel Bannon-Godfrey

For smart cities to elevate our collective quality of life, community-minded design must be at the center of the plan

The adoption of smart-city technology by cities and citizens aspires to solve the multitude of complex and chronic issues facing our urban environments today. However, if misapplied, these technologies could lead to a less equitable, less inclusive city. A driving ethos of our work is to design with community in mind. So, it is important that we ask, what does it mean to design with the smart community in mind?

And, what questions should we be asking during the design process to find the answers? 

Throughout history, planners, designers, and policy-makers have used physical infrastructure to provide solutions to our urban growing pains—from the Roman aqueduct to the zero-emission, electric streetcar. The smart cities taking shape today are leveraging both physical and virtual technologies, such as distributed sensors and cloud-based communication to address today’s urban issues around transportation, waste management, energy distribution and consumption, infrastructure, public services, health care, and other challenges. The smart city has the potential to be a great city—a place that leverages the power of technology and big data to significantly and sustainably elevate our collective quality of life.

Dubai South Master Plan featuring a community hub and multi-modal street with smart transit.

Today’s virtual infrastructure is potentially transformative. A virtual technology can typically be developed and deployed in a fraction of the time—and potentially have a far greater reach—than conventional physical infrastructure. It also has the potential to create power partnerships between private and public agencies and between designers and technology innovators. Architects, interior designers, and lighting designers, for example, will need to collaborate with app-developers and technology companies to make the most of smart buildings.

Traditionally, city management has been the responsibility of government agencies. Now, we see big tech and big data firms working with cities to develop communications networks and city management tools that align with trends in energy and mobility such as smart streetlights, micro-grids, autonomous vehicles, and ride-sharing.

The smart city has the potential to be a great city—a place that leverages the power of technology and big data to significantly and sustainably elevate our collective quality of life.

Non-profits and start-ups are leading the way in leveraging the reach of smartphones and apps to surface data that reflects the way people actually use our cities every day. For example, Streetwyze helps users navigate neighborhoods with information on topics such as walkability, safety, and childcare gathered from users’ local knowledge and imagery.

Between these top-down, public/private, and grass-roots approaches, it is clear that collectively we already have the technologies in hand today to positively impact public health, well-being, and social cohesion at an unprecedented scale.

But will we?

Four questions for smart city technologies

As designers we are trained problem solvers. We ask questions to better understand the impact our projects will have on the broader community, highlighting the factors we need to consider. This discovery phase is necessary on every project, no matter the scale. It is especially critical to guiding smart cities to fulfilling their potential for social good for all members of their communities.

When designing with the smart community in mind, we must keep the following four questions in mind:

1. How accessible is this technology?

In the case of community- or personal-scale technology, we must be cognizant of any financial, physical, and demographic barriers to their adoption. Can it accommodate users that face challenges interacting with technology? Is the user interface multilingual? Is it affordable?

Falling technology costs are opening the door to more communities adopting digital infrastructure and ubiquitous computing. Just consider the impact of rapidly declining costs of smart devices and increasing smartphone ownership across all demographics. However, full accessibility won’t happen overnight, and technology R&D won’t wait. As more of the daily transactions of our lives migrate toward cloud-based technology, we must favor technology that bridges digital divides rather than deepening them.

2. In the case of public scale technology, has it been developed with input from the community (and from the designers)?

The success of engaging smart-city applications in moving society toward effective, resilient communities involves dynamic collaboration between city and municipal government, technology companies, app developers, and engaged citizens.

The greatest successes are realized where local constituents can engage these tools to access information but also have input in the planning and design process. Designers and consultants must collaborate with city leaders, planners, and tech industry partners to help plan a smart community that provides equity across housing, mobility, infrastructure, public realm, and shared services. And members of the communities most in need of infrastructure and quality-of-life upgrades must have the opportunity to voice opinions on the smart technology their city needs.

We must extend the benefits of the smart city out to those communities least likely to have the budget for smart street lights ... and personal health trackers.

3. Who benefits from this technology?

Does it serve the goals of the broader community? Is it scalable to improve the quality of life beyond a narrow target audience?

As an example, will shared autonomous vehicle (SAV) programs be located to improve personal mobility choices for low-income communities or only target business districts? Will SAVs disincentivize the upgrade of existing public transit services to outlying communities? Are we identifying our most chronic urban problems and developing technology to address them—or are we developing technology and then finding problems with which to justify it?

We must extend the benefits of the smart city out to those communities least likely to have the budget for smart street lights, smart bus stops, smart homes, smart air sensors, and personal health trackers.

4. Does this smart city technology support resilience at both the personal and public scale?

Cities are vulnerable to shocks such as earthquakes, tornadoes, and wildfires. They are also affected by long-term stresses that gradually, or cyclically, erode a community’s resilience ranging from drought and air pollution to unemployment and food deserts. Smart-city technology opens new opportunities to improve the daily transactions in our lives, from strengthening neighborhood communication through apps like NextDoor, to real-time notifications making the use of public transit more efficient, to personal air quality monitoring devices like CleanSpace Tag alerting users to potential environmental issues. Truly smart technology should make for a stronger, happier, more connected community where every resident can realize their full potential.

The urgency of smart decisions

It’s natural for designers to embrace every innovation in the race to help smart cities find solutions for the complex issues we see in our cities today. Equally urgent is the need to ask fundamental questions and to broadly engage citizenry and at-risk populations directly to avoid making chronic problems worse. By starting a conversation early—and prioritizing technology that addresses our most pressing urban needs and supports long-term resilience—and by making technology universally accessible to all citizens, we will achieve a truly smart, inclusive city.

  • Rachel Bannon-Godfrey

    As part of the Corporate Sustainability team, Rachel leads our global social and environmental sustainability integration. Applying the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal framework, she helps our global experts become leaders in climate solutions.

    Contact Rachel
End of main content
To top